How to Put up a Spirit House

(without offending the spirit)

by

Dennis Segaller

Click on illustration to enlarge

It is 6.30 a.m. and the head of the house is up and dressed.  His wife hands him a little tray on which are four

tiny dishes containing boiled rice, soup, a sweetmeat, and water, two candles and a joss-stick.  He carries the tray carefully to the elegant little spirit house set up atop its vertical concrete pillar in the northeast corner of the compound, and places it gently on the platform. The dishes are food offerings to the chao tee or guardian spirit of the land, and of everything and everyone on it.  Like other benevolent spirits, and like Buddhist monks, the 'chao tee' does not eat after midday; the householder must soon be on his way to work, so this is his only chance to make the offering. 

 

A fragrant jasmine flower-garland is already hanging from a pillar on the miniature balustrade surrounding the spirit house, placed there reverently by the householder's wife the previous evening.  Her husband now lights the candles and joss-stick and places them in holders on the platform, then squats briefly on his haunches, raises his clasped hands in a 'wai' or gesture of homage, and silently begs the guardian spirit to continue looking after the safety, happiness and prosperity of all the household.

Almost every house in Thailand has its own spirit house, put up as a sacred dwelling-place for the 'chao tee'. By propitiating this spirit for building a house, shop or office block on its land and providing it with its own little dwelling, the spirit will in turn be rendered well-disposed and will ensure the well-being of all who occupy the building.  It will protect them against enemies from outside, whether human or malevolent spirits.

Spirit houses are of different types.  A typical one in the compound of a fairly well-to-do home looks something like a tiny, perfect replica of an elaborate temple, with a gilt spire, multiple tiered roofs, and gleaming white colonnades.  A few houses have charming little models of old countryside temples with dull red weather-worn tiles and an air of antiquity. Poor rural folk have simple wooden spirit houses.

The color of the spirit house should be that of the day on which the householder was born red for Sunday, cream for Monday, pink for Tuesday and so on, though this requirement is not always adhered to. The height of the platform should be at or above the householder's eye-level.  Inside the spirit house should be an image or representation of the 'chao tee', wearing a yellow robe, bearing a special dagger in the right hand and a book in the left hand, although it's said that nowadays the latter is substituted for by a bag of money in order to bring wealth to the householder and his family. The spirit house should also have pairs of miniature men and women representing the spirit's servants and pairs of elephants and horses symbolizing its means of transportation

Some people make offerings and prayers at their spirit house every morning; others do so on Buddhist holy days or 'wan phra', which occur roughly every eight days; yet others, less often.  But whenever something is urgently desired or needed in connection with the home or family the birth of a son, perhaps, or a recovery from sickness the householder or other family member will pray for it at the spirit house, promising the spirit a special gift if the wish is granted.  And that promise is always kept.

Erecting a spirit house needs a special Brahmin ceremony in order to beg the 'chao tee' to come and live in it. In the past this ceremony could only be performed by a Brahmin, a hereditary member of a learned caste which originated in India.  But today there are only about a dozen Royal Brahmins left in Thailand, and no other kind; they participate in royal Brahmin ceremonies such as the annual Plowing Ceremony, the changing of the Emerald Buddha's robes at different seasons of the year, and so on. Nowadays anyone who has learned the correct procedure from a Brahmin, including the necessary Pali incantations begging the spirit to enter, can officiate at the ceremony of installing a spirit house.  He must wear white.

Both the position of the spirit house and the time it is put up must be carefully chosen to ensure good auspices.  The most favored directions are to the east, northeast and southeast of the main house, whose shadow should never fall on the spirit house; nor should the shadow of the spirit house fall on the main house. The auspicious time must be calculated by a qualified astrologer; but the ceremony must be complete by 11 a.m. to allow the 'chao tee' time to finish its meal before midday.

Special offerings are made during the ceremony: a pig's head (perhaps this Thai custom is of Chinese origin), a 'baisee' or ornamental preparation of cooked rice wrapped in banana leaves topped with a hardboiled egg, a coconut, a banana, tea, and two special kinds of sweetmeats associated with spirit houses called 'khanom torn khao' (white) and 'khanom torn daeng (red).  Whoever officiates at the ceremony makes no specific charge for his services, but the householder nevertheless usually pays him a handsome fee.  Besides private domestic spirit houses, there are also  much larger public ones.  In Bangkok there is the shrine of Phra Phrom, the god of Brahma from whom the Brahmin caste derives its name, in the compound of the Erawan Hotel. Here, by day and after dark, a constant stream of visitors pay homage and make wishes and vows to Brahma.

Equally popular is the spirit house of Bangkok, the massive City Pillar near the Grand Palace. This is believed to house Bangkok's guardian spirit, Chao Phor Lak Muang, and many people come here to beg favors just as they do at Brahma's shrine or at the spirit house in their own compound.

Text Copyright Dennis Segaller 2006

Illustration Copyright Yoottachai Kaewdee 2006

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